“Urban mining is an emerging field, thought of as one way to lessen our environmental impact and combat climate change.” —Ari Jahiel

By Ari Jahiel ’19
Normal, Ill.
Geography and environmental studies

Last summer, I worked with another Macalester student to help Professor Roopali Phadke on her research about urban mining—the practice of extracting metals from electronics and other anthropogenic sources of waste, to be re-used in new infrastructure and technology.

Urban mining is an emerging field, thought of as one way to lessen our environmental impact and combat climate change. Climate change is an increasingly urgent issue, and in order to slow the rate of change and counter the effects, we need green technology. Green technology, however, is heavily reliant on rare earth elements and other metals. Those elements and metals are difficult to mine with traditional methods, and their mining also creates its own environmental challenges. Urban mining might therefore be able to help fill that need, and become a key contributor to green technology solutions.

Our summer research was part of Professor Phadke’s larger multi-year mining project, funded by a National Science Foundation grant. We reviewed the social science scholarship on global electronic waste, circular economies, and the variety of businesses involved in safe urban mining practices. Our hope was that this field of scholarship would provide greater understanding of the social, economic, and political contexts within which urban mining occurs as well as the societal implications of urban mining operations.

Since urban mining is both a new and abstract phenomenon, we toured Tech Dump, a Twin Cities electronic recycling facility, to better understand what urban mining might look like in action. There we learned about the complexities involved in recycling these types of materials. For example, taking apart a phone requires significant time and fine motor skills; so instead, Tech Dump collects phones, ships them to another facility that shreds them, and then sends them on to be smelted at yet another facility (often overseas), before the materials can be reused or ultimately discarded.

We also organized a Fairphone Urban Mining Workshop at Mac. We spent a few weeks collecting old phones, gave a short presentation on metals and urban mining, and then began the actual process of taking apart the phones and extracting the metals. This workshop served as an educational platform for community members to learn about urban mining, and an opportunity to think critically about the materials we all use daily and our consumer habits.

Another aspect of our research included creating an interactive map that illustrates more than seventy urban mining hotspots around the world. Our hope is that our work will serve as a source for future studies as well as a learning platform on this topic.

January 7 2019

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